Education: Fewer minorities in Idaho charter schools

by Levi Cavener

     The charter school movement in Idaho is often couched in terms of “choice” for families to select an educational environment that is best for their child. Yet the “freedom” to choose charter schools appears not to be a choice. At minimum, it’s an uphill battle for Idaho’s minority students.   

      Data from public records requests delivered by the Idaho Department of Education clearly indicates that consistently across the state minority population, students are disproportionately left out of Idaho’s charter schools.   

      Remember, charter schools are public schools open to all of Idaho’s students regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender or disability. Yet in instance after instance, most Idaho charter school student demographic makeups are grossly imbalanced in comparison to the community demographics of the school district where those charters   operate.   

       From the Idaho Department of Education’s data, here are three specific examples from Nampa.

      Student free and reduced lunch eligibility is an indicator of families with lower incomes, and 61.4 percent of students in the Nampa School District qualify for free and reduced lunch. Yet charters that operate within Nampa have a substantial gap in the number of students attending their schools that are eligible for free and reduced lunch.   

      A sample of three Nampa charter schools indicates the disparity: Victory Charter has a 32 percent student population eligible for free and reduced lunch, but that is nearly a 50 percent difference from the surrounding Nampa School District at 61.4 percent. Liberty Charter isn’t much better at an underwhelming 37 percent. Legacy Charter follows Liberty closely with 38.5 percent.    

      In other words, there is a substantial disparity between the number of low-income students Nampa School District enrolls and the number of low-income students that Nampa charter schools enroll.

       This trend continues for special education students. Nampa School District has nearly 1,500 students who qualify for special education services; with 15,000 students, that’s 10 percent of the district’s student population. Despite this demographic norm, Victory and Idaho Arts only have a 5 percent special education enrollment; again, a difference of almost 50 percent in comparison to the district where it operates. Liberty is only slightly better with a 6 percent special education enrollment.   

      Keep in mind that special education services can be expensive. When charter schools do not share an equitable burden for providing services to a proportional amount of special education students, the cost of those services is passed on to taxpayers, often in the form of levies. Levies, in whole or in part, are often used to pay for important special education services.     

      This demographic imbalance continues with racial minority groups, and the state Department of Education data here is stark — 38.2 percent of Nampa School District’s students are not white, yet only 24 of Victory Charter’s 384 students are reported as being from a minority racial group. That’s a shockingly small 6.2 percent. Liberty doesn’t do much better at 14.1 percent of its 404 students.   

       Keep in mind many minority students also require costly English language learner programs, which means the local school district, like with special education services, picks up a disproportionate amount of the fiscal responsibility. Unfortunately, this pattern of negligence is consistent across dozens of Idaho’s public charter schools.   

      While some would argue this disparity is a necessary byproduct of so called school “choice,” we need to inquire why it appears minority student families are actively choosing not to enroll in charter schools.   

       Are Idaho charter schools meeting their legal obligation to provide appropriate special education, English language learner and minority student services? It’s time to acknowledge this dirty little secret and find a solution to fix this glaring imbalance in Idaho’s public charter schools.   

Levi B. Cavener is a special education teacher in Caldwell. Data referenced in this column is from the State Department of Education and can be found in entirety on his blog at IdahosPromise.org.